The Charleston Attic

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On Vanessa Bell’s Birthday: 30th May 1879

Vanessa Bell née Stephen was born on this day in 1879. A key member in the creation of the Bloomsbury aesthetic, Vanessa was a prolific worker and over the course of her life produced vast quantities of paintings, drawings, interior design and furniture decorations, woodcuts, book covers, textile and crockery designs. There is a large portion of her work in the AG Gift, spanning from her earliest days at Charleston to her death in 1961.

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CHA/P/606 Vanessa Bell. Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Today, on the day of Vanessa Bells birthday, we are sharing works found in Charleston archives, that celebrate the legacy she left here.

 

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CHA/P/174 Recto. Vanessa Bell, The Kitchen,  c.1943,  painting.  Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Painted from inside Charleston this image shows a young Grace Higgins, Charleston’s housekeeper (1920-70), in the kitchen  preparing a meal. A basket of fresh vegetables from the garden lay in the foreground these would have been an important part of supplementing rations during wartime. With the help of Grace, Vanessa ran an orderly and welcoming household and Grace’ work meant that Vanessa could paint full time.

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 CHA/P/2501 Recto. Vanessa Bell, print of classical scene in Rome, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa’s travels are well documented in the gift and she explored France, Italy and England often in the summertime. Painted during a trip to Rome this image shows a picturesque scene of a church with sculptures that stand on plinths in front of its facade. Vanessa was inspired by both the classical architecture and art of these destinations. Many classical figures and studies are featured within sketchbooks in the gift.

 

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CHA/DEC/3 Vanessa Bell, Fireplace early 19th Century, painted 1925-30, marble. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This colourful and modern fireplace painted between 1925 and 1930 shows Vanessa’s skill in abstracted domestic design. Proudly displaying her cross hatching and circular motif this playful piece is perhaps a quinessential example of Bloomsbury design aesthetic. Situated in Clive Bell’s study this is one of the first objects visitors view when visiting Charleston today.

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On Duncan Grant’s Male Nudes

 

In 1910, at the age of twenty-five, Duncan Grant’s career began to take off. His work was beginning to be recognized, having been shown more widely, and the period of 1908-11 is viewed as being one of rapid productivity for Grant as an artist. ‘He was always very productive,’ Douglas Blair Turnbaugh wrote, ‘[Though] at this time…in his early twenties, his creative genius was beginning to be recognized, and he was considered a leading contributor to the Post-Impressionist movement in England…he had [already] a thorough understanding of French and Italian schools of the past, and highly developed technical skills.’

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Duncan Grant, from various photographs taken by the artist in preparation for his studies, George Leigh Mallory, 1912, 46 Gordon Sqaure, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Richard Shone cites ‘[Grant’s] early portraits of his friends and… relations [as] encapsulate[ing] the sound technical accomplishment [that]he had achieved by his early twenties.’ In 1908, after returning from Paris where he had studied classical painting in the Louvre, Grant was residing at 21 Fitzroy Square in London. It was here that he seriously began painting portraits. As Blair Turnbaugh observed; ‘He took a studio near Belsize Park Gardens and began a series of brilliant portraits of everybody within his reach, including…new friends, and many relatives ….’ In his studio on the first floor, Grant invited friends and family to pose for his painting and drawings to save the expense of hiring professional models. He liked to photograph his models, and ‘These photographs were references for some of Duncan’s erotic drawings and paintings’, as erotic photography was back then illegal and utmost discretion was essential.

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Duncan Grant, preparatory photographs, Vanessa Bell and Molly MacCarthy, 1913, taken in the artists’ studio at 46 Gordon Square, Photographs © Estate of Duncan Grant

 

Grant also posed naked himself for photographs to be taken in his studio. Between 1909 and 1911, he produced of succession ‘youthful’ self-portraits that, in characteristic face-on, close-up style, were ‘intimate and direct’, as identified by Shone. In choosing to portray himself unabashedly, his apparent ease could be seen as a reflection of the intense pleasure he was experiencing in his personal life.

 

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Duncan Grant, Study For Composition (Self-Portrait In Turban) (1910), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © National Gallery

 

Grant and John Maynard Keynes were lovers during the early years of Grant’s initial critical acclaim, and they remained so until about 1910. Happily, this relatively brief romantic period of theirs did not deter their friendship, which prevailed until Keynes’ death. Grant’s biographer Frances Spalding thought it telling of Grant and Keynes’ relationship that, ‘…when he reminisced about th[eir] affair, Duncan gave his close friend Paul Roche the impression that Keynes ‘was closer than anyone except perhaps Vanessa [Bell], and even closer than her in some respects…in the uncluttered recognition one male can have for another.’

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Duncan Grant, Portrait of John Maynard Keynes (1917-18), oil paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Indeed; ‘The significance of Maynard for Duncan went very deep and in old age…Before the end of [that] June [of 1914] he had fallen in love with Maynard and experienced an immediacy of rapport greater than he had ever known.’ This relationship would no doubt have heightened Grant’s sense of creativity s as he became more confident with his sexuality. As Spalding put it, ‘Maynard…liberated Duncan through his own attraction to the genuine and that which was without pretence.’ It helped greatly that Keynes himself had been in a liberal environment when he was a student, ‘[at] Kings College Cambridge [where] homosexuality ha[d] become…rampant.’ in the early 1900s.

Years later, when Roche sat as a model for Grant, Roche observed how he worked, and saw that in his style, Grant had what he saw as a ‘determination not to please [aesthetically] except by telling the truth, and telling the truth through the intransigent beauty of paint,’ Perhaps an element of the openness that Keynes had shared with Grant had found itself within Grant’s portraiture style as he captured his chosen sitters.

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Duncan Grant, Paul Roche with leg raised; date unknown, charcoal and gouache. Photograph © Christies 2015

 

In the summer of 1910, Grant and Keynes holidayed together in Greece and Turkey, and took delight in photographing each other naked against the backdrop of the aged classical landscape. Christopher Reed saw the activity of picture-taking as Keynes’ and Grants’ way of ‘enacting the links they perceived between ancient and modern homoeroticism.’, and this was therefore a kind of an affirmation of sexuality; ‘…free of the repressive structures of [their] own culture[s].’

For Grant, it would have brought into clearer focus through the lens in his mind, the image of the classical male nude; ‘out of doors,.’ Bathing (1911) captures Grant’s idealised version of the male nude, aptly classicized in following of his preferred artistic style. The work was praised; namely, The Spectator remarked that, ‘…the figure scrambling into the boat in the background is a noble piece of draughtsmanship…[the work] gives an extraordinary impression of the joys of lean athletic life.’ Grant hired a model which he photographed in his studio in preparation for the work, allowing him the freedom as well as the accuracy to produce the life-size panorama that came to be so successful.

 

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Duncan Grant, Bathing (1911), oil paint on canvas, Photograph © Tate.

Duncan Grant’s relationships with his models have been much looked at and written about, as they are interesting and complex; they were an integral part of his work and life. Though he made studies of men and women alike; ‘Integral to his creative process…attractive men were as vital a source for Duncan ‘s creative imagination as women were for Picasso’s.”, and he drew his lovers.

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CHA/P/2630 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of female nude, charcoal on paper, Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

The sitters depicted in these sketches of his that we have unearthed this week as part of the Angelica Garnett Gift are less familiar to us. Grant used numerous models in his work throughout his lifetime; some who were paid, though many were family, friends, close or acquaintances.

The two sketches of the female nudes are drawn with their heads turned away from us; their bodies twisted slightly away from the way they are facing, a pose subtly characteristic of Grant’s nudes. These two females were paid models who sat for Grant in about 1930. As a more established artist, Grant would have been able to afford to do this more than he had done so in his early career. The two sketches of the male nudes, both signed and dated, are of friends of their artist. Their inscriptions; ‘Mark, Charleston, 4th June ‘70’, and, ‘EC Farah, ‘65’, refer to the model, date and the place they were done. (Charleston, in the case of the 1970 drawing), as stylistically, we can attribute the works to Grant although he did not sign them.

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CHA/P/2629 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1970), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

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CHA/P/2634 Duncan Grant, study of male nude, charcoal on paper, (1965), Photograph © The Charleston Trust

From the relaxed way they hold themselves, as well as the intimate perspectives from which they are drawn, there is the sense that all of the sitters felt comfortable exposing themselves to Grant for the sake of his art, as was often the case. The sense of truth expressed in the body laid bare is heightened when it is expressed by creative means, and Duncan Grant made no secret in asserting his creativity.

 

Angelica Garnett: A Legacy at Charleston

Of the last descendant of Bloomsbury’s ‘inner-circle’, an impressive obituary of 4th May 2012 remarks that Angelica’s parentage gave her a ‘double share of Bloomsbury inheritance.’  The only child of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Angelica Vanessa Garnett was a talented woman. Undoubtedly affected by her parents’ artistic talents and her unconventional upbringing at Charleston, Angelica’s vast resume encompassed writer, painter, performer, ceramicist and sculptor.

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CHA/P/1643 Angelica Garnett. Two children sat at table. Painting. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Born at Charleston on Christmas Day of 1918 Angelica’s arrival marked the end of the war as well as the end of her parent’s sexual relationship; however, her birth tied them together in a significant way, perhaps a reason for living and working together for the remainder of their lives.

Angelica grew up being doted on by her mother, though her paternal relationships were a little more complicated; growing up believing that her father, like her brothers, was Clive Bell. Angelica was informed of her true parentage at the age of 18, upon sternly being advised not to mention the subject again. Where Vanessa perhaps believed that her child had the love of two fathers, Angelica wrote that ‘in reality,’ she ‘had none’. Her widely acclaimed memoir of this period Deceived with Kindness, the experience of growing up at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, is considered an important part of the set’s social literature.

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CHA/P/1642 Angelica Garnett. Woodland animals by stream. Watercolour and Pencil on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Angelica’s legacy does not end with literature. Many of her early art works (often produced in collaboration with Vanessa) can still be viewed at Charleston, a special example displayed in the spare bedroom. Her sketchbooks also form part of Charleston’s archive, containing fashion design, pattern design and still lives. Recognising and promoting Charleston as a place of significant artistic heritage, Angelica and her brother Quentin’s gift of the house to the Trust along with their tireless work during its period of restoration in the 1980s was instrumental in securing a future for Charleston post-Bloomsbury.

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 CHA/P/2437 /21 Angelica Garnett. Waistcoat design. Pencil on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Aside from the estate, perhaps Angelica’s biggest legacy is the Angelica Garnett Gift, a collection of over 8000 works on paper and canvas. The pieces, mainly works by her parents, had previously filled the drawers, cupboards and studios at Charleston. After Duncan Grant’s death they were held in London at an art storage facility and were largely unseen for nearly 30 years. In 2008 these works were gifted to The Trust, and the exciting work of discovery began. Previously unpublished, this inspiring collection teaches us about the artistic practices and evolution of two internationally acclaimed artists.

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CHA/P/2437/5 Angelica Garnett. Domestic pattern, red and blue crown with green leaves. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The Gift continues to encourage new insights into Bloomsbury’s creative processes and engages us (the attic interns) in the museum documentation processes of cataloguing, digitalizing, conservation and research. Angelica’s gift to Charleston was generous and significant; with it she leaves an important legacy, one that celebrates her family, their work and more intimately, their lives.

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CHA/P/2436/17 Angelica Garnett. Moored boats by trees and houses. Watercolour on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 

‘Collaboration at Cambridge: Bloomsbury Heritage in Domestic Aesthetic’

Last week was #MuseumWeek 2016, and to celebrate, The Charleston Attic will once again be joining institutions all over the world by writing a blog post reflecting one of the themes trending on Twitter.

Thursday’s theme of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, shows the scope for discovery within the several thousand works on paper and canvas that make up the Angelica Garnett Gift.

Last week also marked our independence as the new Attic Interns as we continue with the task in hand: to photograph, catalogue and publish Grant and Bell’s works so that they may be viewed online. There is much excitement to be had in unearthing new items in the collection, and it seems like the perfect opportunity, in celebration of Charleston’s cultural heritage through the Gift, to talk about this week’s findings in relation to the theme.

We have been looking closely at two sketchbooks by Duncan Grant; dated circa 1919 and 1923 respectively. Grant, as we well know, was always drawing- his sketchbooks alone make up a large part of the Gift. The earlier sketchbook contains preparatory figurative studies for the mural that Grant and Vanessa Bell had designed for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at Webb’s Court, King’s College, Cambridge in 1920. These were the second set of murals that John Maynard Keynes had commissioned from Grant for his Cambridge rooms; the first being in 1910. These four panels were covered some years later and the room redesigned in 1920, when a new mural was put in place.

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Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Mural for John Maynard Keynes (1920), Webb’s Court, King’s College. Photograph © King’s College Archives.

Filling entire pages in the book, the figurative studies in pencil and charcoal are emphasized by the variations of shadow and shading made through the boldness of the pressed line on the faded cream paper. Looking at Grant’s sketches of these figures, his focus on certain parts of the body is apparent. His large rough outlines of hands and feet, drawn as appendages to the shapely legs and arms continuing off the pages, conveys bodily movement, as we imagine what the figures would look like as a whole.

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CHA/P/2620/19 Duncan Grant, study of feet, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

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CHA/P/2620/9 Duncan Grant, study of hands, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The figures depicted on the panels are vivid; they are painted in bright colour, and are almost life-size. The poses they strike are dynamic. Although they are dominant – as painted figures they are made the focus of the space’s decoration – the poses they strike are less sexualized than the figures in the original mural by Grant, where surviving photographs show a revel of semi-nude male and female dancers cavorting in a lush vineyard, their baskets burgeoning under the weight of nature’s pleasures in the form of fresh fruit.

‘Grant’s imagery links the abundance of nature with the sensual pleasures of wine, music, and the body, so that nature is figured as sensual and sensuality is asserted as natural.’, writes Christopher Reed about the scene in the early mural in ‘Bloomsbury Rooms’. ‘These themes anticipate the subsequent half-century of Bloomsbury’s domestic iconography, and, in broadest terms, express the group’s determination to implement a domestic existence in opposition to the conventional Victorian equation of civilisation with dominion over nature and discipline over the body.’

The figures in Grant’s initial 1910 mural and in his later 1920 collaboration with Bell are classical, a decidedly  Post-Impressionist aesthetic that harks back to the Renaissance. This is as much a reflection of his painterly style as it is of Bell’s, and it marks one of their earliest artistic collaborations in interiors.

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CHA/P/2620/20 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

Grant’s early and later designs for these murals, conveys, in Reed’s words, ‘…[a] sensual vision’ on Grant’s part, one which ‘re-imagine[s]…a domestic environment to express [a] new way…of life [through]…sexual identity.’Reed saw Grant’s decoration of Keynes’ living space as ‘sett[ing] a modern stage for a new way of life’ for Keynes, ‘the life of a young economist [at Cambridge] who was Grant’s friend and lover.’

The expression of radical ideas through creative practises was the drive behind the Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic that led to Charleston. The interiors decorated by Bell and Grant are as much a demonstration of their artistic practises as their works on canvas. Through our work with the collection, we are gaining a rich insight into the cultural heritage at Charleston.

The objects and their surroundings provide tangible evidence of a past way of life and work. This quotidian sketchbook of Duncan Grant’s is one of many, just like all of the sketchbooks Grant tucked away in the nooks and crannies in corners of the rooms at Charleston. Today is it this particular sketchbook, filled with rough studies for the mural on Keynes’ sitting room wall, that reveals traces of the early Bloomsbury domestic aesthetic.

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CHA/P/2620/2 Duncan Grant, figure study, pencil and charcoal on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

 

 

 

 

 

Highlights from the Gift

As we come to end of our six months together in the Charleston Attic we look back over pieces we have found in the Gift, but have not had the chance to write about.

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CHA/P/2523 Recto. Duncan Grant, Tangiers Landscape, pastel and pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We have found another example of Grant’s sketches from El Farah, the house where he stayed in Tangiers, an unexpectedly extended vacation we discussed a few weeks ago. This sketch is annotated as “from El Farah” suggesting this is the view from Duncan Grant and Paul Roche’s ground floor bedroom-come-studio.

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CHA/P/2552 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Alfred Hitchcock, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Later in life Duncan Grant sketched from his television. Here we see a quick sketch of Alfred Hitchcock which Grant has signed, noting too that he completed the study from film. As Frances Spalding notes in her biography, in 1957 Grant saw television for the first time and wrote to Vanessa Bell “I really think it is the end of civilisation as we know it… but of course one can’t help glancing in its direction from time to time”.

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CHA/P/2472 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a horn for poster “Musical Instruments for the Front”, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This is a study for the poster that Duncan Grant designed in c.1918 which read “Wanted! Wanted Musical Instruments for the Front… If you have any musical instruments to give the soldiers at the front write at once”. The posters were printed by David Allen & Sons Ltd. Charleston has recently acquired one of the few remaining posters known to survive which alongside this preliminary study provides insights into his design practice.

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CHA/P/2443 Vanessa Bell, Lithograph, London Children in the Country. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

One box that we have worked through during our time here contained various examples of woodcut prints and lithographs executed by both Bell and Grant. Read more about these prints and the significance of print making in both artists’ works in our previous blog here. This lithograph is by Vanessa Bell and is believed to illustrate the experience of evacuated children from the capital city in the countryside around the beginning of the Second World War. The print design dates from 1939.

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CHA/P/2413 Recto. Vanessa Bell, painting, Berwick Church study, paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This is a study of a lamb by Vanessa Bell which would go on to make part of her final mural design for The Nativity at Berwick Church executed in 1942. Berwick Church commissioned these murals by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in the early 1940s and they can still be seen today. You can walk from Charleston to Berwick Church; find the route on our walking maps available in Charleston’s shop.

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CHA/P/2253 Recto. Duncan Grant, figure study, pen on newspaper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This piece illustrates the inter-textuality of many of the works found in The Angelica Garnett Gift. Here Duncan Grant has penned a nude figure study on a page from The Nation, signing this sketch in a different pen at a later date, and adding the note “can’t make out/ don’t remember the sitter”.

As our season here comes to an end we welcome and wish good luck to the new Attic interns Emily Hill and Philippa Bougeard.

 

Zoe Wolstenholme and Rebecca Birrell

 

Spotlight Lectures: Research in the Attic

Next Thursday we will be presenting our research through public lectures held at Charleston in the historic barns. We will talk about our individual research projects looking in depth at items found in The Angelica Garnett Gift. These talks mark the beginning of the summer season and the house will also be open accessed via guided tour which you can book here. Book a place on our Spotlight lectures here.

Please do come to this free event and talk to us about our projects and the Angelica Garnett Gift. Here are some introductions to our talks:

Vanessa Bell’s Faceless Portraits and The Angelica Garnett Gift

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CHA/P/2586 Recto. Unattributed, painting, seated portrait in yellow, paint and crayon on paper. © The Charleston Trust

The Angelica Garnett Gift exposes the extent to which Bell and Grant sketched, both casually for pleasure and as a mode of thinking through concepts for their work. Sketching – especially in such volume – appears to voice an admission regarding representation itself. Their throwaway, unserious, unfixed quality shrugs before the monumentalising pressure of the portrait. Unsure of itself ontologically and aesthetically, the sketch offered a medium closer to Bell and Grant’s perception of human life. Conditioned by shifts in science, philosophy and psychoanalysis, the British avant-garde began to understand and depict experience as fluid, unstable and marked by a profound alienation.

This paper will argue that the importance afforded to sketching surfaces in the incorporation of its visual vocabulary into Vanessa Bell’s portraits, which are characterized by blurred, featureless faces.

Rebecca Birrell

Dressing Modern Identity: Victorian style re-imagined in The Angelica Garnett Gift

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CHA/P/2454 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Omega hat designs, c.1912. pen on paper. © The Charleston Trust

In her letters as a young woman Vanessa Bell illustrates her stories of sartorial conquests with sketches of the silk coats and dress shapes that hung in her wardrobe. She delighted in purchasing fabrics abroad and went on to suggest dress design as an endeavour for the Omega Workshops. Duncan Grant’s career also shows an active interest in dress through his costume designs for the theatre and in his Omega hat and fan designs. However, the importance of dress is often overlooked in Bloomsbury academia. I seek to illuminate the pervasive presence of dress as a mode of expression in the work and lives of Bell, Grant, and their contemporaries. My argument pivots upon two specific sartorial finds in the Angelica Garnett Gift consisting of two pages of hat designs by Duncan Grant annotated “Omega Hats 1912.c.” and a Vanessa Bell sketchbook that reworks the image of the fan, resulting in a pattern design for a printed fabric in c.1946. Both reinterpret these specifically Victorian styles to make statements about Modern identity through dress.

Zoe Wolstenholme

“Chloe liked Olivia”

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A Conversation, Vanessa Bell. 1913-1916. Photograph © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Compiling research for her survey of contemporary women’s fiction in 1929, Virginia Woolf came across a startling line in a novel by Mary Carmichael: Chloe liked Olivia. Carmichael’s statement may appear straightforward, but it radically refuted all Woolf’s reading thus far.

Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

One needn’t look far to find women in discord, their relations ruptured by jealousy; anything more nuanced has been ‘left out’, Woolf laments in A Room of One’s Own, ‘unattempted’. Novels may busy themselves endlessly over women’s relation to men, but rarely are the particulars of female friendship afforded any significant attention in literary culture.

Three women huddle by a window, deep in conversation; a bed of tulips rise from the garden beyond as if straining to catch any stray chatter. Bell’s 1913-1916 painting A Conversation precedes Woolf’s passionate polemic by nearly fifteen years, yet appears to capture precisely what Woolf saw as so lacking in fiction. Original and defiant, Bell’s piece discards the trappings of heteronormative domesticity Woolf regarded as so pervasive in the representation of her peers. Intimacy, Woolf argues, has not been authentically imagined beyond the confines of straight coupledom; however Bell’s scene boldly discards men and their concerns, celebrating rather a feminine, communal model of kinship. Maternity one of few themes in the art historical canon enabling depictions of female subjectivity is similarly shunned. Instead Bell conjures a scene of women powerfully asserting their presence, vividly breaking the silence imposed upon them by literary and artistic culture. Just as Bell can be observed adapting her bathing scenes to attenuate the more prurient, dominant gaze of the genre, she here paints women at ease in a homely environment without recourse to typical beauty or elegance. Their bodies are large, arranged in a tense formal arrangement expressive of the confidential, conspiratorial mood of the moment. Further, where a reductive vision of women’s relationships once reigned, ambiguity now holds sway: dressed in a navy smock, the woman leaning from the left of the frame is wide-eyed, perhaps anxious; the remaining pair return her gaze, but their expressions are vague, impenetrable.

Indeed, the subtleties underpinning conversation between women was especially fascinating to Woolf, who hoped for a fiction dedicated to:

those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex.

Bell’s vibrant signature palette and sensitivity to intersubjectivity illuminated her female subjects their idiosyncratic gestures, their affinities and affronts long before Woolf made these demands of her own medium. Woolf and Bell’s tireless efforts to complicate the representation of women in their chosen forms is especially pertinent today, International Women’s Day.

Lyric Charm and Quiet Wit

The Angelica Garnett Gift never fails to surprise with its traces of Charlestonian foreign travel. Amongst a scattered geography of postcards, sketchbooks and letter paper, we have followed Bell and Grant from the winding backstreets of St. Tropez to sites of classical antiquity in Greece. This week the tokens of travel are a pair of vibrant landscapes from Duncan Grant’s 1975 visit to Tangier.

 

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CHA/P/2594. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

At 91 Grant remained a keen traveller, so on 17th October 1975 he took a late flight from Heathrow to Tangier with companion Paul Roche. Grant planned on passing a tranquil few weeks painting at El Farah, the home of friend Rex Nan Kivell, a former hotel three miles outside of Tangier with which Grant was by now familiar, having stayed twice before in the late sixties. Due to Grant’s reduced mobility, the pair slept downstairs in a room with magnificent views of the town, surrounding countryside, and distant glimpses of the sea. Yet Grant delighted most in his immediate environs, as Paul Roche recalls:

‘He was enchanted by the cacti, the hibiscus, the bananas and the heavily scented long ivory funnels of datura.’

However, disaster soon struck: as a result of damp and cold evenings in El Farah, Grant soon contracted pneumonia. A brief and pleasant holiday became a lengthy mission to stabilise Grant’s health, with he and Roche finally leaving on his full recovery seven months later.

Once the worst of Grant’s illness had passed, Roche recalls idyllic days of drawing and dining, paying visits to the local artistic elite (such as Paul Bowles and Marguerite McBey) alongside hours devoted to their creative projects. Remembering Grant’s aesthetic during this period, Roche remarks:

‘Unable to command the solidarity of a portrait or a still-life anymore, Duncan had let loose his lyric charm and quiet wit.’

These Tangier landscapes are certainly instances of such ‘lyric charm’, rendering local flora and fauna in astonishingly bright blues and purples, executed with an abstraction closer to the experiments of his youth. Like many of the pieces from his time in Tangier, one can imagine these works completed at the large circular table of Grant’s make-shift studio, with Roche reading on an adjacent divan, or cycling into town to purchase their lunch.

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CHA/P/2595. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Their preservation in the gift is itself a stroke of luck. Thanks to months of roaring hot fires (in a desperate attempt to buoy Grant’s strength) El Farah’s sumptuous interiors were almost entirely ruined by smoke, soot and ash. This is not to mention Grant’s rather puckish approach to the villa’s soft furnishing. While a  tablecloth cut into fanciful patterns could be easily concealed, Grant’s other transgressions were more obvious: the grey velvet upholstery of an armchair was refashioned into a  dashing Post-Impressionist design, if somewhat frustratingly for Kivell with the use of a black permanent marker. As a result, Roche was eager to offer Grant’s works as recompense; yet Kivell was sympathetic to the pair’s plight, gratefully receiving only a small watercolour of an orange.

The remaining pieces we can only assume returned home with Grant and Roche, after a long internment in the ad-hoc home they created out in Morocco.

The Process of Abstraction

In many of the sketches by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift one can see the tangible ephemera of everyday life abstracting. Still life scenes become shapes and darts over the course of a sketchbook. Subjects are reworked and refined as outlines of their former selves. People disappear, represented instead by the shapes of their clothing and surroundings. In these works we see the artists’ processes of abstraction, using the contours of landscapes and the shaping of the figure to create significant forms.

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Duncan Grant Lily-Pond design. Photograph © Art Gallery of South Australia.

Bell and Grant experimented with abstract art in the 1910s both in their individual work and in their designs for the Omega Workshops. Grant’s Omega design Lily-Pond used in the Lily-Pond Table that can be seen in Maynard Keynes’s bedroom at Charleston is a notable example. This piece, like many of the sketch works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, though abstract is still recognisably representational. The dark depths of the pond are the bottomless backdrop to the drama of golden scaled fish rippling the lily pads and creating dancing reflections of light. Similarly an abstract landscape sketch by Duncan Grant that we have found in the Gift (see below) replicates the motion of the natural world. Wind moves in a spiralling motion above cliffs and wavy lines rise from the ground and along the edge of a cave. Fish also swim in a pool of water in this sketch, but now they are all facing the same direction, copies of themselves. Indeed, the forms in the sketch are more graphic, more geometric, than those in Lily-Pond. The bold lines of the sketch both capture the mood of this perhaps imaginary landscape whilst refining its representation into abstraction.

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CHA/P/2318 Recto. Duncan grant, drawing, abstract landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa Bell was also interested in the abstraction of the natural world. Her lesser known painting Landscape, painted on the back of another of her works Window, Still Life, uses the colours and shapes of nature to communicate the feeling of being in a landscape, rather than what it may actually look like. It is as if the fleshy coloured shape of a figure mid-way down the painting is swimming through this landscape, which could be both lily pond and shaded canopy in the same moment. Lines and blocks of colours are also used to insinuate the fall and refraction of light upon the natural scene. This painting is particularly interesting due to its being on the back of another work Window, Still Life from 1912-13. Indeed, the canvas of Landscape was cut down to fit the size of Window, Still Life meaning Landscape must pre-date it and that it was an early experiment into abstraction for Vanessa Bell.

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Landscape by Vanessa Bell. Photograph © The Cheltenham Trust.

Works like these would develop in Vanessa Bell’s work culminating in 1914 when she created one of the first completely non-representational abstract paintings made by a British artist. This pioneering Abstract Painting developed alongside other paintings which used geometric shapes, such as her portrait of Mary Hutchinson in 1915 and her 1915 self portrait. In these paintings the abstract shapes and colours relate to the colours used to demark the sitter. It is thus possible to read these backgrounds as abstract representations of the portraits themselves.

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Mrs St John Hutchinson by Vanessa Bell, 1915. Photograph © Tate.

At the same time Duncan Grant created his Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) which was a design for a long piece of abstract work which would be hung over mechanical spools rotating the design enabling it to be viewed sequentially through the aperture of a box as it passed. He also intended it to be set to music, specifically a slow movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Although this project was never realised this and Bell’s works in abstraction assert their importance to the development of abstract art in the 1910s in England.

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CHA/P/2399 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Indeed, the Angelica Garnett Gift is a rich resource for considering their approach to abstraction. When Bell painted her groundbreaking abstract canvas she had, as Richard Shone notes, “seen hardly no non-figurative work by other artists”. This suggests that Bell, influenced by the visual vocabularies of Post-Impressionism brought to England by Roger Fry in 1910, developed her works into abstraction on her own terms. Indeed, the gift gives us glimpses of abstraction in action. A Vanessa Bell sketchbook which includes various studies of fans also contains a sketch in which two well dressed ladies are reduced to the shapes of their fans and feathered hats themselves, standing before a table abstractedly set with a glass of wine and a bowl of fruit for lunch. Furthermore, a page of sketches by Duncan Grant focusing on the female form is also dotted with decorative motifs that mimic the curvature of the female body.

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CHA/P/606/42. Vanessa Bell, drawing, decorative motifs, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Although abstraction seems to have been key to both artists’ oeuvres in their artistic development and their continuing process of design for works of art and decorative commissions, Quentin Bell later recalled how Vanessa Bell felt that purely abstract work enacted a loss of the subject matter that she craved. Despite moving away from abstract aesthetics in painting the Angelica Garnett Gift is revealing the continuing importance of abstraction as a method of thinking through composition and design in the works of both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

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CHA/P/2487 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, abstract design, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 

“The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell”

Samantha Wilson, previous Curatorial Intern in the Attic, can be seen here reading her paper “The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell” at the Understanding British Portraits Annual Seminar held at the National Portrait Gallery in November last year. Read our synopsis of her argument here.

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